Har Ki Dun March 2017. Part 1- Nainbagh to Taluka.
Mistakes. We all make them.
A lot of you may think that an experienced trekker is immune to making mistakes, but you would be wrong. Trekking experience only means that-
- I make mistakes less often
- I recover better and usually in a non-life threatening way from these mistakes.
Underestimating the amount of snow at Har Ki Dun was my biggest mistake this spring. I’ve realised that I tend to make a lot more mistakes on my first trek after a long hiatus. After the first trek, I settle into a rhythm and the mistakes fizzle out. So if you’re trekking after a long interval this monsoon, be extra careful.
The drive from Nainbagh to Purola (Google Maps) is a short and quiet one. The tourist season has not yet started and sleepy small villages and towns dot the landscape. The apricot trees are in bloom and their pink and white flowers dot the landscape. Purola is the last town (before Sankri) that has a petrol pump and 3G internet connectivity. I fill up my Maruti Gypsy to the brim and make my obligatory phone calls to my designated contacts. I have two designated contacts for every trek. These are friends who know my trekking dates and routes. I do it so that these friends can initiate a rescue in case I fail to contact them by a certain cut off date. I had allocated 5 days for this trek and told them to expect me back in a week’s time. As much as I enjoyed the drive to Purola, I could have never imagined that the best part of this journey lies beyond Purola. The drive from Purola to Mori is ethereal and sublime. Majestic pine and cedar (deodar) flank this scenic and winding ribbon of tarmac. For a moment it felt like I had been teleported to a different land altogether. Despite the fact that I live in the mountains, I can honestly state that this is one of the most exquisite stretches of hill road in India. If you have an interest in bicycle or motorcycle touring you owe it to yourself to add this stretch of road to your itinerary.
The Maruti Gypsy is a four-wheel-drive vehicle based on the long wheelbase Suzuki Jimny SJ40/410 series. It is primarily an off-road vehicle, or a vehicle for rough unprepared roads (Wikipedia)
Yet, my tranquillity was soon shattered by a shrill metallic ring coming from the back of my Gypsy. I knew that sound, I’d heard this same sound a week ago in Mussoorie. It turns out that the metal support that connects the silencer to the chassis had snapped loose…again. This had happened to me a week before in Mussoorie and I had tried hard to persuade the welder then to fabricate a stronger support for the silencer. Yet, he was too disinterested or plain lazy to work on fixing the real problem and instead had rectified it with a quick weld. It was this half-hearted placed weld that had given away. Is there a welding shop en-route to Sankri or should I head back to Purola and get this fixed before the other supports come loose as well? As I stand on the side of the road weighing my options I hear the welcome sound of a wheezing diesel engine making its way up the road. A battered Mahindra Maxi Cab emerges around the corner, overflowing with supplies and barely making it up the incline. These ubiquitous Maxis connect every small town and village in Uttarakhand. I flagged down the driver who parked 100 metres only after he’d made it up the incline. There is a strong camaraderie between Jeep owners and after looking at the silencer he pronounced that it could be fixed in Mori as long as I got there by 5 PM. Now going fast is not what an old Gypsy is made to do. It was already a quarter past four. I had planned to make some videos of this beautiful road but all that was forgotten as I drove my crippled bird full steam all the way to Mori.
Mori is a small town and the welding shop is one of the largest shops in town. Salman is a skilled fabricator and he tut-tutted the old job as completely unprofessional. He quickly devised an extra heavy duty metal connector and made one clean weld to connect it to the silencer. ₹ 150 and a job well done. Often I bemoan the quality of work done in India, but today was an exception. Salman gives me a five-year guarantee on his work over any terrain. I don’t doubt his word because the silencer has not made a squeak since that day and this includes a month of bad roads all over Uttarakhand.
The road from Mori quickly falls into disrepair but the natural beauty of this valley remains mesmerising. The road winds along the true left of the Tons River. Rolling grass, a gurgling clear water river and towering trees, this is the ideal place to pitch a tent.
It is almost sunset when I roll into Netwar, the entry point to Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and Sanctuary. At the forest check post, I am expected to enter my details and pay up for the number of days I plan to stay inside the sanctuary. I find it a bit counterintuitive that I have to specify my departure date even before I enter the sanctuary.
“What if I decide to overstay, or perhaps not leave at all,” I joke to the forest guard. “Then you will be fined 20,000 rupees or perhaps jailed,” replies the forest guard in a deadpan voice. It is strange how bureaucracy doesn’t have a sense of humour anywhere in the world. Sigh!
The sun has already set and I have the headlamps on as I leave the forest check post and start climbing to Sankri. The road is bad and I don’t get to see any landscape in the darkness. Following my GPS, it takes me 40 minutes to complete the last 12 kilometres to Sankri. Like any other Indian hill town, Sankri is a row of shops set on both sides of a narrow road. The most imposing structure in town is Hotel Swargarohini. As I park across the street I see a curious ceremony unfolding. A guy with a microphone is calling out people from a group and handing over a certificate. After handing over the certificate, they shake hands and are cheered on (rather unenthusiastically) by the group. A guy with a DSLR is photographing this ceremony and blinding everyone within ten feet with his gigantic flash.
After the ceremony is over I ask the photographer what this was all about. “This group completed the Kedarkanta trek and we are rewarding them with a completion certificate that they can hang on their wall,” he says. “Pardon my ignorance,” I mutter, “but I never thought of a trek as a test where you pass or fail and get a certificate”. "Most trekking agencies do this nowadays, the clients expect it,” the photographer tells me.
Dinner is a simple affair at a dhaba just across the road from Hotel Swargarohini. The dhaba is operated by a formidable woman of Tibetan descent and some giggling girls. When travelling I prefer to eat at restaurants run by women because they tend to have better hygiene. A tip disseminated long ago by a close friend.
I walked around after dinner but like every small town, everything had shut down after sunset. Thus I decided to go to bed early but the question was where? If I sleep next to the road I am often woken by curious onlookers peeking into the back of the Gypsy which serves as my night rest. Therefore I decided to head up to the GMVNL Guest House, just a little bit away from the main road. The chowkidar gave me an incredulous look when I told him that I could not afford a room and would prefer sleeping in my Gypsy. Yet he was gracious enough to let me use his parking space.
The next morning I was up at 4 AM. I spent the next couple of hours exploring the small side trails around Sankri. Sankri resembles a frontier town from a Western movie. Posters extolling various trekking operators hang like the “wanted dead or alive” posters. This rapid and unchecked expansion is evident from the lack of infrastructure. Water is piped via a jumble of pipes to individual shops. Plastic and garbage litter the streets. Electricity wires are a tangled mess. “This is a developing town” the shopkeeper from whom I buy a few Snickers bars tells me with pride. I am too jaded and weary of explaining the difference between “development” and “exploitation”, so I pay up and walk in town. I see a lot of trekking agencies and I watch a gentleman get out from his swanky SUV and throw an empty packet of chips on the road. This was the staff car of one of the trekking operators. And this apathy is why the “Swachh Bharat" movement will fail. Cleanliness cannot be enforced top down, it has to be a grassroots movement.
Dismayed at what I see, I decide to have an early breakfast and leave. My feet find their way to the same dhaba where I’d had dinner. The woman running the dhaba had hot and oily aloo paranthas fresh off the tawa for me. As I’m wiping the excess oil off my hands, she tells me that I must hand over a bag to the last dhaba at Taluka which is run by her father. This woman is used to getting her way and I’m not going to mess with her. So I meekly collect the bag and bid her adieu.
The ride from Sankri could make an excellent introduction to cross country driving. No wonder that nothing but the ubiquitous Maxi will ply on this road. There are three water crossings along the route and the first one is a raging torrent. The Gypsy wades in struggling to find grip even in the low range four wheel drive. I can feel the tyres battle the current as it tries to push me and my vehicle sideways and into the abyss. The next couple of water crossings were easier and a final push through snow and slush means I am in Taluka in just under an hour. Taluka is a small village with a couple of shops and a dhaba. The road is a dead end at Taluka’s Forest Rest House (FRH). As I ride in, the chowkidar rushes to open the gate realising only too late that it is not an official Forest Department Gypsy. By the time he realises this, I have persuaded him to let me park inside the FRH grounds. (Hee-ha!)
The dhaba where I’m supposed to hand over the packet is right next to the FRH. I order a sweet chai and sit down to pack my gear for the trail. I am not carrying my specialised snow clothing or gear with me on this trip. The freak snow in early March had caught everyone, including myself, unaware. This was a mistake that would cost me later in the trek. At the dhaba, everyone gathers around as I pack and the unanimous opinion over chai is that my endeavour is foolhardy.
I try and convince them that I will turn back if the weather turns nasty or if the trail is treacherous but I have a feeling they do not believe me. Sipping my chai I befriend a young guy, Dinesh from Datmir. Datmir is Taluka’s twin village. Dinesh tells me that most people have houses both in Datmir and Taluka villages. Datmir is the preferred summer residence while in the winter they come down to Taluka. Dinesh works as a porter and guide but since I need neither he wants to join me for an attempt at Har Ki Dun. I tell him to pack his gear and meet me in an hour.In thirty minutes I see him back in a koti (a handwoven wooden coat) and tattered running shoes. This will not do I tell him and lend him my spare boots, trekking poles and a backpack. By the time I have finished packing I find him back in his running shoes. “I am saving the boots for deep snow,” he tells me. There are things you cannot control despite your best intentions. So I smile and we head out together along the Har Ki Dun trail.